Before he goes on the air each night, ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir listens in his earpiece to the White House coronavirus press briefings, which usually offer a mix of important updates on the pandemic — mixed in with President Donald Trump’s complaints about the media, Democratic governors and the World Health Organization.
Then, during the half-hour newscast, Muir will refer to what’s being said in the briefing — but it’ll be largely matter-of-fact and to the point — as a way to “cut through the noise,” as he says.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, audiences across all of the traditional network evening newscasts have spiked, a reminder of how much larger their average viewership is than for that of top cable news personalities. Last week, ABC World News Tonight led in total viewers and the adults 25-54 demographic — the newscast’s average of 13.7 million viewers made it the most watched program in the country.
“It is very rare in our lifetimes that we see moments like this one, where you have this sort of intersection of an urgent public health threat where lives are at stake. You have an economic collapse. You have a test of leadership at all levels,” Muir said. “And it’s not surprising to me in any way that there is this high anxiety across this country. We’re feeling it too. And I do really believe that we have some small role to play in trying to bring that anxiety level down every night, and try to arm people with the information that’s going to help them get through another day of this, because we are still in the middle of a storm.”
Deadline spoke with Muir earlier this week about covering the crisis from a nearly empty studio, why more viewers are turning to the evening news now and what lingering questions he’ll have once the pandemic is over.
DEADLINE: Many on-air personalities have been anchoring from home. Do you think you will have to do that at some point?
DAVID MUIR: You know it’s interesting. We have a studio set up and we’ve tested it several weekends in a row. And it’s sort of a day-to-day decision that we’ve made. I still make that trip up to ABC late in the afternoon, and I’m struck from the moment I walk in to ABC by how different everything is right now in this moment. You walk down the hallways and the doors are all closed. Many producers are working from home. I walk up the stairs to the set every night, and there’s no one in the hallway. Quite frankly, I miss everyone, because we all feed off of each other during the course of the day. But I think that everyone understands that we’re in this moment. And when I get to the studio, it’s really just me, a floor director, and a writer, and they stand off to a distance.
DEADLINE: Do you feel a need to balance the grim news with the need to reassure the public?
MUIR: I am convinced that no matter how dire the situation is, that one of the ways that you bring the anxiety levels down in this country is to arm people with the facts. I mean, [Tuesday] night as we came on the air, this country recorded its deadliest 24 hours yet. You can’t hide that fact. You have to report it. You have to put it in the proper context. And as difficult as those moments are, I also firmly believe in some way that actually helps people at home. Because the more information they have, the more in control I hope that they feel in this situation that in many ways feels out of control.
One thing that we are seeing right now, hopefully, is sort of a reaching of the peak, or a beginning of the plateau, not only in New York City but in other hotspots around the country. And so again, I think if we offer context to everybody and encourage Americans in ways that reinforce what we’ve been asked to do this social distancing and to let them know that it does appear to be working, just to slow it down, the reach of this virus. I think those are all very important ways to try to put the audience at ease.
DEADLINE: This is a story that has hit every newsroom, including ABC News. It has affected people personally, and New York is all one of the epicenters of the pandemic. Do you think that has impacted the way that that you have presented stories?
MUIR: I think by being in one of the epicenters of this, being in New York City, you can’t help but to be reminded of the gravity of the situation. On my way home from work last night, after the broadcast, there was a blaring ambulance right in front of us. And it’s a reminder that what we’re all doing in this moment is extraordinarily important. And I think no matter where you live in this country, you’re feeling this. This is a big hearted country, and I also firmly believe that every night we have to remind people of the real heroes, the doctors and the nurses, the health care workers, the grocery store workers, the postal workers. All of these American workers who are still showing up to work, risking their own lives. Those moments of humanity also help in ways that almost cannot be defined. But it’s our job to try to find that sort of collective moment at the end of the broadcast, where we can signal, ‘We’re in this together.’ There are heroes everywhere you look.
DEADLINE: I noticed on [Tuesday] night’s broadcast at the start you quoted some of what President Trump said in the the briefing that had just happened. How do you choose what to highlight?
MUIR: Before I even come on the air, I usually have a page full of notes of what I’ve just heard from the President or from the doctors on his team. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx. And I use those quotes throughout the newscast. I pepper them into different intros where I know that perhaps something they have just said offers some new light of what we’re about to tackle next in the newscast.
DEADLINE: Do you think the networks should be covering the briefings live?
MUIR: In the beginning we covered it everyday live, and I think we have to recognize that in every part of this country, they’re living through this pandemic in their own way. There are hotspots all over this country and so often, when the president comes on, that’s the precise moment when the local news is on trying to inform their own community on their hyper local level. And so while we carry the president and the briefing live on our digital channel, we listen very carefully, and if there is something of enormous magnitude, we are ready to break in at a moment’s notice. But I think that too is a day-to-day decision, as we all make our way through this, which why it is especially important that I have an ear to what’s playing out in that briefing.
DEADLINE: How did you decide [on Tuesday] to point out that in that day’s briefing, the President said “every American has a role to play.” Why was that an important point to convey?
MUIR: That’s where my role as a reporter comes into play. So, while I’m sitting there listening to the President, and in that moment when I heard that, I knew that was important to convey because what we’re hearing from the President was not only his reaction to the numbers in a 24-hour period that was the deadliest in America so far, but also the modeling that shows some glimmer of hope that we might be reaching either an apex or a plateau here. And what the President was saying in that moment was signaling to the American people that the only way we got here is through social distancing. When I heard him say that “every American has a role,” I believe it was important to convey that moments later, because I really think it’s the only way that we’re going to keep this outbreak at bay. And it’s our job to try to arm people with the proper context of what those words mean.
DEADLINE: What aspect of the crisis do you think is getting is being underplayed right and perhaps not getting enough attention?
MUIR: Well, every day, there is a new piece of data or a new layer to peel back. And [Tuesday] I thought one of the most important storylines of the moment was this terrible toll on African Americans in this country. When both the President and Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed this in those minutes before we went on the air, I quickly put that into my copy as well, because we were going to report that regardless of what had been said from the White House. But the fact that they underscored how alarming the data is, and this will certainly be something that we have to look at very carefully on the other side of this.
DEADLINE: There has been a spike in viewership for all evening newscasts during this crisis. Do you have a sense that will continue even when this is over?
MUIR: You know, I’m really just trying to help guide people in this story. I look at it this way. We’re in a moment in our society, in our culture, with a saturated media landscape, and in many ways that’s a great thing. People have so many choices, and have for quite some time. But I think there are these moments where Americans are hungry to collectively experience something together. And I think in this moment, it is not at all surprising to me that they are finding a place to turn that I hope offers them sort of a careful, measured approach.
DEADLINE: If you could interview President Trump at that this moment, what do you think you would ask him?
MUIR: I have many questions for any of our public servants. I mean I do believe this is a test of leadership at all levels. … I think we turn to leaders in this moment certainly for some element of comfort for the American people, that this is being taken seriously and that everything is being done in this moment to get the healthcare workers and the patients whatever it is they need to get through this. But I also think there’s an important component of this which involves some very tough questions about how prepared America was, and how much we can learn from this to make sure that we are armed and ready should this ever happen again.
DEADLINE: Once this is over, what story will need an even deeper dive?
MUIR: There are so many stories that will be extraordinarily important on the other side of this. What will America look like in the coming weeks and months? Questions about whether or not people have had coronavirus and not realized it. Do we have antibodies? Do we have immunity? Will coronavirus come back in the fall, as we see with some other seasonal illnesses and diseases? And certainly, we have to hold our leaders at every level to account. What were the warnings? When did the warnings come? And did we do enough? And I think that you have to feel that out day to day. There is a balance to what we present every single night. You know when you get sent out — and I have been sent out to so many hurricanes over the course of my career — you have the forecast model, you know the hurricane is coming. You never quite know how bad it’s going to be. It hits, and then it’s over. And you begin assessing almost immediately the damage, the impact on people’s lives. But we have to remember that we’re still in the middle of this. That’s what’s so different about this moment. It’s not just one region of the country. It’s the entire country.
DEADLINE: How have you and your family coped with this?
MUIR: I work from home for most of the day. We do a number of calls and we do one, what I consider to be the most important editorial call of the late afternoon, where everyone dials in from home, from their offices with the doors closed. And that is our one moment to bring each other up to speed and to make sure we’re ready to go into this broadcast together…. I’m wearing the mask as the government has asked us to do. I walk into ABC and down those empty hallways to that studio alone and I am reminded every night of the time that we’re in. It won’t be forever. But this is different, and it’s unsettling. And not unlike so many other families across this country, I’m FaceTiming to check in on my parents. Their questions become my questions, and it’s sort of a guiding principle. They’re contributing to the news every night in ways they don’t even know.
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